Premiering at SXSW, The Highwaymen tells the true story of Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner), a former Texas Ranger lured out of retirement to help put an end to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow’s reign of terror in the American south. Reluctantly re-teaming with his former partner, the alcoholic Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), the two men use their gut instincts to track the notorious crime duo.
Hailed as modern-day Robin Hoods who rob from the rich and give to themselves, the Depression-era Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were bonafide celebrities, causing fan mobs and fashion copycats.
Hancock and writer John Fusco, both Texas natives, were determined to give justice to the men who were depicted as bumbling oafs in the 1967 Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway classic Bonnie & Clyde, where a series of botched, simplistic ambushes failed to capture the pair.
Instead, what the new films delivers is a dry and uneven look at a wild goose chase told mostly with cars in park and little action. Costner and Harrelson do the best they can, leaning in to the buddy cop aspects of the script, but the chuckles and thrills are too few and far between. Stakeouts are dull, crime investigations end before they gain traction and filmed with less tension than the average cop show.
Completely wasted is Kathy Bates in her role as Texas Governor Ma Ferguson. Kim Dickens plays Hamer’s wife Gladys who, despite a promising dynamic with Costner, has little screen time with him. Thomas Mann plays a conflicted young detective and former school chum of Bonnie and Clyde who hasn’t quite been able to reconcile between his childhood memories of the duo and their modern-day massacres.
Any film about Parker and Barrow would have an uphill battle when it comes to changing the narrative put forward in the 1967 classic. The Highwaymen certainly isn’t going to sway anyone into siding with the law.
Though Parker and Barrow’s fame and dirt-poor upbringing is mentioned throughout the film, there’s little comment by Fusco on why the downtrodden rally behind them, adopting them as folk heroes despite the shocking nature of their crimes.
Above all, what The Highwaymen is not is the Bonnie and Clyde story, shifting the focus in a way that proves unsatisfying. Hancock hammers this point home by giving the criminals little screen time, few close-ups and zero dialogue. While the movie may have set out to pull attention away from their criminal deeds, it has the opposite effect – just as Hamer and Gault can’t tear themselves away from the pull of the criminal couple, neither can the viewer.